Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Once more: My Position on the Jesus Mythicism Question

I have been asked once again to explain concisely why I believe Jesus is a myth.

My initial response to that question is “Who doesn’t believe Jesus was a myth?” There is no dispute among biblical scholars, or at least among critical biblical scholars (let’s leave aside the apologists) that the Jesus of our canonical gospels is mythical. No-one believes Jesus really walked on water or literally raised the dead.

Critical biblical scholars, for various reasons, believe that “the historical Jesus” (the Jesus who is not a myth) lies hidden behind those gospel narratives and that with appropriate tools like criteria of authenticity or some adaptation of memory theory they can catch glimpses of what that historical Jesus may have been like in the eyes of his contemporaries.

As for Paul, there is no question that his Jesus, and especially his crucifixion, is a theological construct. Critical scholars generally tell us that Paul had no interest in the historical Jesus but only in a heavenly one, that is, in a mythical one. Jesus’ death was a theological event with power similar to that of Isaac’s blood to atone for sins. (Simon Gathercole in his article I recently addressed reminded me that Dale Allison said scholars have in recent times come to accept the authenticity of one passage in 1 Thessalonians that is considered evidence of Paul’s belief in a historical man and I am in the process of tracking down and studying those references.)

I believe in the Jesus of the gospels and of Paul’s letters: that is, I believe the Jesus of the gospels and Paul is a literary, mythical or theological figure. I don’t know of any critical scholar who would seriously suggest otherwise.

So the question I am sometimes asked is more meaningfully re-worded: “Why do you believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings of the gospels and Paul?”

My only reply can be: I don’t “believe there was no historical Jesus behind the writings….” To believe that something is or is not so requires a level of evidence that is generally not found when it comes to many biblical stories or characters, or even many classical narratives of very early history among the ancient Greek and Roman historians. I have posted several times now on the clearly stated methods used by the leading historians of ancient history and shown that none of them uses the tools of biblical scholars to discover some past historical figure behind our histories and biographies. None. Yet it is not hard at all to find even biblical scholars themselves addressing the inability of those tools to provide a valid result.

I think the irrational character at the heart of many peoples’ beliefs in the historical Jesus is discerned when they cast aside calm, rational discussion of the evidence and react with hostility, ad hominem, misrepresentation. We can understand such reactions coming from people who feel threatened in some way. (I should add that there are a good number of Jesus mythicists who are just as guilty of personal insult in preference to well-reasoned and evidence-based argument. Most of those, at least in my experience, belong to the “Type 2” mythicists.)

I have posted many times why historians of ancient history can legitimately believe in a historical Julius Caesar or a historical Socrates (even though they may not be able to tell you with confidence exactly what such ancient persons were really like) and I have also made it clear that our level of evidence for such persons (even for “nobodies” like the historicity of Cicero’s slave Tiro and a stammering rival rhetorician to Seneca) is qualitatively far richer than the evidence we have for a historical Jesus behind our mythical or theological documents.

I don’t think there is much room for argument about that difference in the qualitative character of the evidence. Perhaps that’s why some people are not interested in serious discussion about historical methods that might expose the nakedness of certain biblical scholarship, and why they so often prefer instead to stay and fight or disappear in flight.

Was there a historical Jesus? I don’t know. I can’t say. Can the evidence we have be explained without appealing to a historical Jesus? Yes, I tend to think it can. (Despite the gross misrepresentations of the arguments of those who demonstrate this fact.)

What methods do I apply to our evidence?  I try to apply the methods that one very distinguished biblical scholar said should be applied to the study of Jesus. The methods Philip Davies spoke of are no longer relegated to fringe extremism in the studies of “biblical Israel”. (I think it was Thomas L. Thompson, a scholar in the same “school” as Davies, who said that we must first tend to the Jesus we do know about and have before us: that is the literary figure. I believe we need to apply the normative methods of historians (not speaking of New Testament historians) to explain that Jesus.)

Philip Davies

[S]urely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous. This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. — Philip Davies, Did Jesus Exist, 2012

I can see little fundamental difference between the methods of which Philip Davies spoke and the methods of his peers in classical and ancient history departments, or in just about any other history department I know of. I am slowly working on collating my various posts on historical methods that I hope can be a ready reference in future whenever I am asked the question again.

 

 

Addressing Simon Gathercole’s “Historical and Human Existence of Jesus” (#1)

To state the argument against one hypothesis using the presuppositions and terminology of the competing hypothesis involves a circularity that undermines any hope for a fair assessment of the evidence.Mark Goodacre, 2002 (82)
Simon Gathercole

Simon Gathercole has had an article published behind the paywall of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus opposing the idea that the Jesus figure of the New Testament originated as a theological and literary concept and in favour of the idea that he had a historical existence. Gathercole is addressing the evidence in the Pauline corpus, being titled, “The Historical and Human Existence of Jesus in Paul’s Letters.”

Gathercole opens with a statement that seems to run against certain claims of others (viz Ehrman, Hurtado, McGrath et al) who have argued against mythicism:

“Mythicism”, the view that there never was a Jesus of history, has in recent years attracted increasing interest from scholars. This interest is a positive development, not only because of the increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship, but even more importantly because of growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public.

There has been an “increasing interest from scholars”? There have been “increasing attempts by mythicists to engage with scholarship”? There has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public”? Outright denial of the first two statements has at times been used by scholars and their public backers as a reason to dismiss the questions raised by mythicist arguments. Perhaps Gathercole is thinking of critics of mythicism in his first claim such as James McGrath, Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, Larry Hurtado, Daniel Gullotta. But it is unusual to hear from a critic that mythicists are making “increasing attempts to engage with scholarship”. In fact, mythicist arguments that have most impressed me are those that have engaged with mainstream historical Jesus scholarship from the outset: e.g. works of Earl Doherty, G. A. Wells, R. M. Price. As for the final point, that “more importantly” there has been a “growing Jesus-scepticism among the general public” one does have to wonder why current scholarly publications addressing such a “problem” are not made freely available to the public.

Simon Gathercole’s abstract to his article contains the following:

Attention to the language of the birth, ancestry and coming of Jesus demonstrates the historicity and human bodily existence of Jesus. There is also information about his ministry, disciples, teaching and character in the epistles which has been neglected. Paul’s letters, even taken alone, also show the Herodian timeframe of Jesus’ ministry.

And that’s where my opening quotation from Mark Goodacre (made in the context of the Q debate) enters the picture. Gathercole unfortunately does not address the core arguments of mythicists (from Drews to Couchoud to Wells to Doherty to Price) that argue for Paul’s view of an ahistorical figure of Jesus. He does partially address one idiosyncratic suggestion by a more recent scholarly mythicist which we will address later. Gathercole’s essay focuses almost exclusively on an expansion of the passages used by scholars to argue against mythicism (let’s for convenience call them “historicists” in this post) but without addressing the primary arguments of mythicists to the contrary, and therefore without anticipating what mythicists might say in reply to his expansions of the historicists’ position.

It may help if I set out my own cards on the table for all to see before we start.  read more »

Response #2 to History for Atheists’ “JESUS THE APOCALYPTIC PROPHET”

The first part of my response to Tim O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet is @ Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet. There we pointed out that there is no support in our historical sources (primarily Josephus) for the common assertion that Judaeans and Galileans in the early first century were pining for an imminent overthrow of Roman rule and the establishment of a liberating Kingdom of God. In other words, the assertion that apocalyptic prophets like our gospel depictions of John the Baptist and Jesus would have been enthusiastically welcomed at that time lacks evidence.

This post addresses one more significant but (as I hope to demonstrate) flawed plank in O’Neill’s argument. I expect to address one more final point in the Apocalyptic Prophet essay in a future post.

Tim O’Neill begins the next step of his argument with the following verse and without identifying the source of his translation: 

“Has come near”, as we shall see, is a disputed translation. But O’Neill is confident that his translation is the correct one, and he even asserts without reference to any evidence that Jesus was speaking of a soon-to-be end of human oppression, not just demonic rule:

The writer of gMark does not depict Jesus explaining what he means and expects his audience to understand – here Jesus is proclaiming that the expected end time had come, that the kingship of God was close and that those who believed this and repented would join the righteous when the imminent apocalypse arrived. Far from being a prophet of doom, Jesus is depicted proclaiming this imminent event as “good news” – the relief from oppression, both human and demonic, was almost here.

Towards the end of his post O’Neill does acknowledge that some scholars do dispute the translation but he sidelines their arguments by characterizing them as “a tactic” that was plotted “in reaction” to threats against conservative doctrines, and he accuses the scholars themselves of unscholarly “wish fullfilment (sic)”, and to cap it all off he infers that Schweitzer’s arguments have so stood the test of time that they are the only ones followed by entirely disinterested scholars: read more »

The Criterion of Embarrassment: Origins and Emendations

A Long-standing Tool

While searching for other things, I stumbled upon this paragraph in a Wikipedia entry.

The criterion of embarrassment is a long-standing tool of New Testament research. The phrase was used by John P. Meier in his book A Marginal Jew; he attributed it to Edward Schillebeeckx, who does not appear to have actually used the term. The earliest usage of the approach was possibly by Paul Wilhelm Schmiedel in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1899).* (Wikipedia: Criterion of embarrassment, emphasis mine)

* Stanley E. Porter, Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (Continuum, 2004) pages 106-7.

Having read Schillebeeckx, I was taken aback. Didn’t he mention the term “embarrassment” in Jesus: An Experiment in Christology? In a post from 2013, we quoted him:

Each of these gospels has its own theological viewpoint, revealed by structural analysis no less than by disentangling of redaction and tradition. Via their respective eschatological, Christological or ecclesiastical perceptions they give away their theological standpoint through the selection they make of stories reporting the sayings and acts of Jesus, as also in the way they order and present the material. Consequently, whenever they hand on material not markedly in accord with their own theological view of things, we may take this to be a sign of deference in the face of some revered tradition. (Schillebeeckx 1981, p. 91, emphasis mine)

Hey, Porter!

Perhaps I had a false memory. It wouldn’t be the first time. Could he have discussed the mechanics of the criterion without ever using the word itself? I turned to Porter, who in a footnote wrote the following:  read more »

Modern Scholars on Pre-Christian Jewish Beliefs in Suffering Messiahs and Atoning Deaths

I am currently sharing the evidence for a pre-Christian Jewish beliefs in a suffering servant, even dying, messiah set out by Joachim Jeremias, but in response to a reader’s comment I would like to list here some contemporary scholars who have presented similar or related arguments. I can only list the few whose works I have read and no doubt there are many more I am yet to discover.

In one or two of the linked articles below are citations by a contemporary scholar suggesting that the same evidence we have been reading from Jeremias is not “absolutely conclusive”; others, however, continue to see the evidence as more clear cut.

The first name to come to mind is the prominent Jewish scholar, Daniel Boyarim. Boyarim points out that Jewish ideas of a sacrificed messiah logically have to precede Christianity since the rabbis would never have copied the idea from the Christians.

Martha Himmelfarb discusses pre-Christian interpretations of a dying messiah.
Other scholars such as Jacob Neusner point to similar views but their works can hardly be said to be still “contemporary”.

Thomas L. Thompson, whose thesis on the nonhistoricity of the Genesis patriarchs at first excluded him from academia but has now become a mainstream view, has in various publications argued that

  • the first royal messiah died and David poured out a lament over him
  • the Pentateuchal high priest was an anointed, a messiah, whose death led to the return of certain exiles
  • the Davidic messiah figure is depicted as a pious man who suffers greatly, even faces death, yet is ultimately vindicated

Matthew Novenson in his book, Christ Among the Messiahs, rejects the idea that pre-Christian Jews could only conceive of a conquering royal messiah and argues that Paul, far from being completely at odds with Jewish thought of his day, uses χριστός within the range of conventional Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

Leroy Huizenga agues that the author of the Gospel of Matthew based his Christ figure upon Isaac who was offered as a sacrifice to atone for all the sins of (future) Israel. Some Jews interpreted the Genesis account to mean that Abraham did in fact kill Isaac and shed his blood but then brought him back to life again. His shed blood was to cover the sins of God’s people.

Jon Levinson similarly argues for the centrality of the early Jewish belief in the atoning power of the blood actually shed by Isaac in his sacrifice prior to his return from the dead.

Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis points to indicators of an early Jewish belief in a messianic high priest offering a ransom and that one “like a son of man” in Daniel was believed to have been sacrificed to the Ancient of Days and that these interpretations found their way into the gospels.

David C. Mitchell posits the belief that Zechariah 12:10 applied to a future Messiah ben Joseph to come in the last days and be slain at the dawn of the messianic age and that this belief was at extant before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

Joshua Jipp has pointed out that the messianic (pre-Christian) Psalms of Solomon 17-18 are based on our canonical Psalm 2 which refers to a royal son of God facing threats to his life by early rulers.

Of course most readers are aware of Richard Carrier and his arguments, similar in some ways to those of Thomas Thompson.

Other posts of relevance, though some of their references are to scholars from around the same time as Jeremias.

 

 

18 Vridar Posts on the Gospel of Luke’s Emmaus Road / Cleopas Narrative

After Tim’s recent post Unclear Origins and Etymology of Kleopas and noticing readers’ interest related to the subject I thought some of us might be interested in a complete list of Vridar posts on the Emmaus Road narrative. Here they are, all 18 of them, annotated.

When did Peter first see the resurrected Jesus? 2007-09-16

  • The Emmaus road narrative features as a core part of an attempt to explain the mixed messages given the role of Peter in the post-resurrection narratives of the canonical gospels. It argues that Peter first met the resurrected Jesus, as per 1 Corinthians 15:5, some time after the writing of the gospels of Mark and Matthew but just prior to Luke’s gospel — or more likely as late as that redaction of Luke by the author of Acts and around the time of the Pastorals.

The origin and meaning of the Emmaus Road narrative in Luke 2007-11-17

  • The Emmaus Road narrative in Luke 24 raises many questions. Why is the hitherto unknown Cleopas one of those who appears to be the first to meet the resurrected Jesus? Who is his unnamed companion? Why does the narrative conclude with a statement that Jesus has appeared to Simon when no such appearance is described? Is this really a reference to Simon Peter or some other Simon? Do the two travellers tell the eleven apostles about the appearance to Simon or is it the eleven apostles who are telling the two travellers that Jesus has appeared to Simon?
  • The best explanation I can think of is based principally on the problems faced by an author wanting to introduce relatively late in the life of the church a brand new narrative involving a central character. This leads to an look at the logic of the narrative of the gospel and an attempt to understand its structure through the standards of popular story-telling of the day, as well as in the context of similar well-known Jewish stories. It also considers the possibilities that the text found in an alternative manuscript, the Codex Bezae, contains some elements of the original story.

The Emmaus narrative and the techniques of popular story-telling 2007-11-18

  • Below I have summarized the conclusions of the far more detailed discussion of the Emmaus road narrative. It offers an explanation for some of the problems with this narrative by seeing it in the context of the art of popular story telling. . . . . Those problems largely disappear when the ending is read as being constructed with the tools of ancient popular fiction.

Luke’s dialogue with John on the first resurrection appearance? 2007-11-19

  • An examination of a possible relationship between very similar post-resurrection narratives in the Gospels of John and Luke, each narrating a scene of two people, one named and the other unnamed, walking back to their homes after discovering the empty tomb.

More on Luke’s use of Genesis 2007-11-19

  • Jacob, after deceiving his father Isaac with a kiss, the kiss described with the same “drawing near” motion later used of Judas in Luke, soon afterwards, a day or two it seems, left the scene of the betrayal of his father and brother to go to his mother’s home in Haran. It was on the way and near the end of a day that God appeared to him in the dream as he slept on rock or stone that assumed significance in Jewish legend — at “Oulammaus”. All of these features of the Jacob story are echoed, as previously discussed, in the story of Jesus appearing and revealing his identity to the two on the road to Emmaus.

Resurrection: more responses to Bishop Wright’s study 2008-04-30

  • The Road to Emmaus story contains easily recognizable literary motifs associated with similar stories in Genesis and Judges . . . .

read more »

The Unclear Origins and Etymology of Kleopas (Κλεόπας)

The Road to Emmaus

The author of the third gospel tells the well-loved post-crucifixion story of two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus. Along the way they meet a stranger (Jesus, incognito) who asks them what’s going on.

One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” (Luke 24:18, NASB)

Here, Cleopas (Κλεόπας) makes his first and only appearance in the canonical gospels, unless you believe the character named Clopas in John’s gospel is the same person.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19:25, KJV)

Notice that the Authorized Version manages to hide the fact that the underlying Greek contains a different name. The Textus Receptus says κλωπα, but the KJV translators have pre-harmonized John with Luke, a fact the lay reader would scarcely suspect.

(From this point forward, I’ll use the modern transliteration for Kleopas and Klopas.)

Virtuous Harmonization

Some have even argued that Alphaeus, Klopas, and Kleopas are all the same person, but you would have to dive pretty deeply into the upside-down world of the apologists to believe that. Harmonization here, given the scant information we have about the name and the characters portrayed in the gospels, is unwarranted.

We might even suspect that Luke invented the name, given the lack of attestation to it in contemporary literature and the uncertainty surrounding its etymology. Some authorities have presented the argument, not without merit, that Kleopas is short for Kleopatros, the masculine form of Kleopatra, a name that means something like “glory of the father.” As an example, they note that the nickname of Herod Antipater was “Antipas.” On the other hand, several authors have claimed that the names Kleopas and Klopas both come from the same Aramaic source, which seems possible, but tough to prove.

Fictional Characters

Being called Antipater or Antipas was not intended as an insult.

Richard Carrier, in On the Historicity of Jesus, says Luke probably invented the name and then goes further, claiming that it means “Tell All.” He writes: read more »

An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

This post is a follow up from Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness. I may come to see this attempt to compare the structures of the myths as a sad misadventure but till then, let’s see what happens.

Detail from the Santa Maria sarcophagus (late second century?). Was Jesus depicted as a child because the myth declared him to be a child at this point or is he depicted as a child to merely symbolize the beginning of a new life beside the aged John the Baptist representing the old?

We begin with the “gnostic myth” of the advent of an illuminator or saviour figure that was announced by the second kingdom:

1. A prophet is said to be the beginning of the saviour figure who is presented as a child.

2. A bird takes the saviour to a mountain, presumably a wilderness setting

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

4. Presumably after the child has become an adult an angel appears to declare the saviour figure now has power and glory

5. The figure comes to the water.

The image below attempts to illustrate that particular structure. (For the understanding of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power and submission see the previous post.)

Next, look at a similar myth in the Book of Revelation, though we will simplify it for starters. This structure is illustrated in the middle column.

1. The prophet John is writing, or announcing, the advent of the child saviour figure from the time he is born.

2. An angelic voice declares that great power and glory has now come into being, presumably a proleptic announcement concerning the child. (The mother and child are separated; the mother will be a proxy for those who follow the saviour-child).

3. A bird (eagle) carries the mother of the child to the wilderness

4. The woman is nourished and cared for in the wilderness (by….?)

5. The water of chaos, a flood, attempts to destroy the woman but she is protected by the wilderness earth.

The larger structure is essentially the same as the gnostic myth but the middle two steps are reversed. This reversal appears to be a function of the splitting of the child from its mother (and rest of her seed).

The structure the previous two myths is completely inverted with the Gospel of Mark. Coming to the water or facing the water is now moved to the beginning, along with the prophet, and is no longer the culmination of the story. In this gospel the water has become a symbol of baptism which is a figure of the death of the old man (as per Paul). In the Gospel of Mark we have the narrative bookended by narratives of death and emergence from death, first symbolically in the water, then finally through the cross.

1. The prophet announces the advent of the man saviour.

2. The saviour figure comes to the water and as he emerges from it.

3. The saviour figure is addressed as a sacrificial victim — the inverse of the power and glory we saw in the other two myths. For “my beloved son” as a signal of a son to be sacrificed see Jon Levenson’s studies on the Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. But the power and glory is still latent because the saviour figure is still the son of God.

4. The spirit (identified as a bird, in this case the dove) drives or propels the saviour figure into the wilderness.

5. The saviour figure is nourished by angels in the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke add the mountain.)

The angels and the bird take on inverted meanings. The angels feed and nourish the saviour in the wilderness, thus doing enough merely to keep him alive after his long fast and encounter with Satan. There is no roaring declaration of the saviour being imbued with power and glory.

The bird has changed from an eagle to a dove. The eagle had the power to rescue and carry a person in flight. The dove drives the saviour figure into the wilderness but has already come to him at the moment he is declared to be the beloved son (for sacrifice).

The Gospel of Mark may be thought of as inverting the rival myths of a messiah or saviour coming with great power. The water has become a means of symbolic death and birth as a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed.

The earlier myth of power is not completely displaced, however. We see the saviour figure in the wilderness nourishing his followers by the thousands; he then ascendes a mountain before returning to walk upon the water to his disciples. Several details of this narrative indicate it is to be understood as a theophany, or perhaps even originally a post-resurrection appearance. The myth of power is not completely replaced but it is supplemented by an inverted form of the myth to take place first.

 

Further Evidence of a Pre-Christian Concept of a Suffering Davidic Messiah

 

It is commonly recognized that the Gospels depict Jesus’ crucifixion as an ironic royal enthronement.

We know the evidence for this statement: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem; the riddle of Psalm 110 over the messiah being David’s Lord; the parable of the pounds; the dressing up of Jesus in royal garb; the ironical mocking of Jesus as a messiah and king when he is on the cross; and the Gospel of Mark’s ironical Roman triumph  and mock acclamation of Jesus as emperor. Some have questioned whether pre-Christian Jews ever contemplated the idea of a messiah who suffers. I have posted some of the reasons we have to think that some Jews did speculate on the possibility of a suffering messiah and this post will be one more addition to that archive.

The point is not so much that David is the paradigmatic example of a “righteous sufferer” so much as he is the “righteous suffering king.”
William Hole. David fleeing from Jerusalem, cursed by Shimei. Wikipedia Commons

I recently posted an excerpt from Martin Goodman’s discussion of Second Temple Jewish beliefs about a coming messiah:

In some Jewish texts the central figure in these events of the last days is called the Messiah, ‘the anointed.’ Some texts, like the Psalms of Solomon, describe the Messiah as a human figure, descended from David:

Behold, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to reign over your servant Israel in the time which you did foresee, O God. Gird him with strength to destroy unrighteous rulers, and purge Jerusalem from the nations who trample her down to destruction … And he will be a righteous king over them, taught by God. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the anointed Lord. [Psalms of Solomon 17:21-22, 32]

Interestingly another scholar, Joshua Jipp, has pointed out that that messianic Psalm of Solomon is based on our canonical Psalm 2 which speaks of a suffering messiah.

One may ask if there are any specific examples of pre-Christian messianic appropriation of the psalms. Psalms of Solomon 17 and 18 use Psalm 2 in their description of a coming Davidic Messiah. Moreover, one could describe Ps. Sol. 17:21-32 as a midrash on Psalm 2. For example, the coming Davidic figure is depicted as bringing forth punishment ἐν ῥάβδῳσ ιδηρᾷ (“by an iron rod”; Ps. Sol. 17:24), an exact replication of Ps 2:9.

The vocabulary of Ps 2:9 of σκεῦος κεραμέως συντρίψεις αὐτούς (“you will crush them into pieces as a potter’s vessel”) is echoed in Ps. Sol. 17:23b-24a with ὡς σκεύη κεραμέως . . . συντρῖψαι.

The use of Psalm 2 by Psalms of Solomon, therefore, provides further evidence of the eschatological and messianic nature of Psalm 2.

Perhaps most important, however, is the psalms’ frequent depiction of a Davidic figure, under intense duress and persecuted by his enemies. While suffering and hostility at the hands of one’s enemies are potentially common to all humanity, it is King David who is portrayed as the righteous, royal sufferer par excellence (Pss 7:4; 69:4; 109:3). His enemies surround him to mock and afflict him (e.g., Psalms 22; 69; 89). David’s plight frequently brings him to the point of despair, wondering if God has abandoned and forsaken him, giving him over to death and Hades (Pss 22:14-18; 38:5-8; 69:16-20). Yet despite his sufferings and persecution, David maintains his fidelity and hope in God. In the Davidic psalms one finds the paradoxical combination of kingship and righteous suffering. The point is not so much that David is the paradigmatic example of a “righteous sufferer” so much as he is the “righteous suffering king.”21 This anomaly, namely, that David, God’s anointed one, undergoes persecution and suffering, has great importance for Luke’s conception of Jesus, the suffering Anointed One.

21 In other words, though the psalms’ characterization of David as a “righteous” sufferer is extremely significant, it is his royalty and kingship that are crucial for Luke’s appropriation of the Davidic psalms. 

(Jipp, 258f)

read more »

Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness

An important consequence follows. If a myth is made up of all its variants, structural analysis should take all of them into account. — Claude Lévi-Strauss (435)
The structural analysis developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss invites one to compare the variants of a myth so as to define the rules that led to their transformation. . . . [A] myth is comprised of all of its variants — meaning that one version alone of a myth is not held to be unique and authentic . . . . However, Lévi-Strauss shows that the nature of any myth is to reinvent itself through each new speaker who appropriates it.  — Philippe Wajdenbaum (1)

 

Our canonical gospels all begin the career of Jesus with John the Baptist. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all follow the baptism of Jesus with a wilderness testing of Jesus. Why don’t we see more variation in starting points and details if each author had his own set of historical or biographical traditions to draw upon?

I am aware that the terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” have become problematic among a number of scholars in more recent years but I use the terms here as they were used by Robinson in his 1970 essay. For the sake of convenience I also use Mark to refer to the author of the Gospel of Mark.

One more point: Certainly the baptism and wilderness episodes in the gospels derive largely from the Exodus account of Israel leaving through the Red Sea and spending 40 years in the wilderness. I do not deny that association. But it also appears that there are other accounts that may derive from reinterpretations of the Exodus event, or that the Exodus narrative was in some way remoulded several times to produce the different narratives discussed here: Apocalypse of Adam, Revelation, Gospel of Hebrews, synoptic gospels.

The reading that led me to produce this post was prompted by James M. Robinson On the Gattung of Mark (and John) (1970). Robinson suggests a common source lies behind the Gospel of Mark’s beginning with the baptism and wilderness experience of Jesus, our canonical Book of Revelation’s reference to the birth of a child and the fleeing of its mother to the wilderness, a section of the “gnostic” “Apocalypse (or Revelation) of Adam and a passage in the now mostly lost Gospel of Hebrews.

Robinson does not think that our Gospel of Mark was an attempt to historicize spiritual gnostic teachings but that Mark adapted genuinely historical traditions to conform to a pattern of gnostic thought. We may wonder if it is necessary to bring any assumption of historical traditions to the question but that’s for each of us to decide.

The section of the Apocalypse of Adam is a list of proclamations from thirteen kingdoms. This part of the apocalypse is generally understood to have originated separately from the rest of the text because of various inconsistencies in the way it fits into the surrounding narrative. As for dating it, I have seen arguments for it being dated to very late second or third century (a reference to Solomon matches a late trajectory of evolving myths related to Solomon’s power over demons) and other arguments for it being dated as early as the first century CE or even BCE (it lacks the sophisticated philosophical elements of later gnostic myths with their various emanations from a single remote deity and eclectic inclusions of other gospel references).

Here is the thirteen kingdoms passage taken from Barnstone’s The Other Bible:

“Now the first kingdom says of him. …
He was nourished in the heavens.
He received the glory of that one and the power.
He came to the bosom of his mother.
And thus he came to the water.

And the second kingdom says about him that he came from a great prophet.
And a bird came, took the child who was born and brought him onto a high mountain.
And he was nourished by the bird of Heaven.
An angel came forth there.
He said to him, ‘Arise! God has given glory to you.’
He received glory and strength.
And thus he came to the water.

“The third kingdom says of him that he came from a virgin womb.
He was cast out of his city, he and his mother; he was brought to a desert place.
He was nourished there.
He came and received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“The fourth kingdom says of him that he came from a virgin. .. .
Solomon sought her, he and Phersalo and Sauel and his armies, which had been sent out.
Solomon himself sent his army of demons to seek out the virgin.
And they did not find the one whom they sought, but the virgin who was given to them.
It was she whom they fetched. Solomon took her.
The virgin became pregnant and gave birth to the child there.
She nourished him on a border of the desert.
When he had been nourished, he received glory and power from the seed from which he had been begotten.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the fifth kingdom says of him that he came from a drop from Heaven.
He was thrown into the sea.
The abyss received him, gave birth to him, and brought him to Heaven.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the sixth kingdom says that a [ . . . ] down to the Aeon which is below, in order, to gather flowers.
She became pregnant from the desire of the flowers.
She gave birth to him in that place.
The angels of the flower garden nourished him.
He received glory there and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the seventh kingdom says of him that he is a drop.
It came from Heaven to earth.
Dragons brought him down to caves.
He became a child.
A spirit came upon him and brought him on high to the place where the drop had come forth.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the eighth kingdom says of him that a cloud came upon the earth and enveloped a rock.
He came from it.
The angels who were above the cloud nourished him.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the ninth kingdom says of him that from the nine Muses one separated away.
She came to a high mountain and spent some time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous.
She fulfilled her desire and became pregnant from her desire.
He was born.
The angels who were over the desire nourished him.
And he received glory there and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“The tenth kingdom says of him that his god loved a cloud of desire.
He begot him in his hand and cast upon the cloud above him some of the drop, and he was born.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the eleventh kingdom says of him that the father desired his own daughter.
She herself became pregnant from her father.
She cast [ . . . ] tomb out in the desert.
The angel nourished him there.
And thus he came to the water.

“The twelfth kingdom says of him that he came from two illuminators.
He was nourished there.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the thirteenth kingdom says of him that every birth of their ruler is a word.
And this word received a mandate there.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water, in order that the desire of those powers might be satisfied.

read more »

Noah’s Birds and the Documentary Hypothesis

Noah, a few birds, and a mermaid

Neil recently posted about the Documentary Hypothesis, citing Thomas Brodie’s Genesis as Dialogue (2001), a book I enjoyed but in the end did not convince me to abandon the DH. While reading the post, one quotation caught my eye.

Nor do the two diverse types of bird (the raven and the dove, 8:6–12) mean two sources. In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah-like Utnapishtim sends out three diverse birds—a dove, a swallow, and a raven (Brichto, 1998, 114) — but that does not mean three sources. (Brodie 2001, p. 182)

This sort of overstatement, which comes with implicit eye-rolling and foot-tapping, plays well to the converted, but falls flat among the rest of us. Do DH adherents think there are two sources merely because there are two species of bird? Surprisingly, no.

Here are the arguments, briefly:

  1. Gen. 8:7 is self-contained.
    • Noah releases the raven.
    • The bird goes out and returns, back and forth, until —
    • “the water dried up from the earth.” The flood is over; the narrative restarts at 8:8, wherein water still covers the earth.
  2. The language in 8:7 is different from the language in 8:8.
    • Noah releases the dove from him.
    • The words translated as “earth” in this passage and in 8:7 are different.

read more »

Another look at the Documentary Hypothesis. An alternative proposal.

Were the first books of the “Old Testament” composed by “redactors” piecing together stories from different sources (that has long been the predominant view) or is it possible that they were composed by a single author or “school of authors”? The former is the documentary hypothesis. For a background on the documentary hypothesis refer to the post Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. The topic has resurfaced with some recent posts (Plato and the Bible; Genesis to Kings, Authorship) that question the validity of the DH, proposing a “unitary authorship” of the Pentateuch and more. I am intrigued by the new alternative but have not yet sold my soul to it. I am not always overly enthusiastic about some of the arguments for a single authorship. So consider these posts as exploratory and informative. (But that’s what most of my posts are here, anyway.

Here I cite but one scholar’s criticism of the DH and proposal for the Flood Story in Genesis being composed from scratch as a single narrative. That is, the narrative is not a patched quilt of priestly and Yahwist sources after all. Here is Thomas Brodie’s take on the story (quoted words are in dark azure; the rest is my summary and comment.)

The deluge account contains much repetition and variation, and so some researchers have suggested that it is composed from two sources — J and P . . . .

(Brodie, 181)

Some of the examples of the repetition and variation:

  • Sometimes Yhwh, other times Elohim, are used for God. The sections with Yhwh have been attributed to the J source, Elohim sections to the P source.
  • At one time we read that two of each kind of animal was brought into the ark; later we read there were seven pairs of clean animals but only two of each unclean. The former has been attributed to the P source; the latter to J.
  • We first learn of forty days and nights of rain; later of the flood cresting after 150 days. J, then P.
  • The command for Noah to enter the ark is duplicated: 6:18–20 (P) and 7:1–3 (J).
  • Twice we read of Noah and his family entering the ark: 7:7 (J) and 7:13 (P).
  • Twice we read of God’s promise to never again destroy the earth: 8:21 (J) and 9:11 (P)

Brodie’s faults the documentary hypothesis as being based on contradictory arguments:

The final product is not an unimaginative collection of material drawn from distinct sources, but an artful unified composition arranged chiastically around the central affirmation in 8:1 that “God remembered Noah.”

This explanation, however, contains radical problems, problems that are both general and specific.

In general: the explanation is not coherent. It implies two opposite procedures — mechanical juxtapositioning (regardless of overlap or divergence) and artistic unifying. One procedure is slavish, the other imaginative. Behind these procedures are two opposite attitudes — scrupulosity and freedom. The contradiction in the explanation is far deeper than the contradictions in the text.

More specifically, the theory is not supported by the details. There are several problems (see esp. Ska, 1994; 1996, 259–260):

1. The purported J story is seriously incomplete. It contains no account of making the ark or leaving it. Such lack of completeness is not explained by a desire to avoid repetition. The author had no problem with repetition as such; some minor details occur twice.

2. The so-called “double” entry to the ark (7:7–9, 13–16) does not require two sources. The doubled text is part of a single coherent repetitive style — similar to the repetitiveness of Genesis 17 (17:23–27). Essentially the same is true of other so-called doublets: they are part of a coherent repetitive style. Repetition is a basic feature of narrative, especially of biblical narrative (Alter, 1981, 88–113). Repetition results from various techniques (Niccacci, 1994). The issue then is not whether there is repetition but whether it is possible to discern the repetition’s variation or purpose. The two commands about entering the ark (6:18–20; 7:1–3), for instance, have several variations of context and content, but they are sufficiently similar to build something important: the sense — amid a collapsing world — of momentum and continuity. Nor do the two diverse types of bird (the raven and the dove, 8:6–12) mean two sources. In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah-like Utnapishtim sends out three diverse birds—a dove, a swallow, and a raven (Brichto, 1998, 114) — but that does not mean three sources.

3. The language of some purported J material, especially as regards order and sacrifice, would normally be reckoned as late or priestly.

For these and other reasons, scholars such as Blenkinsopp (1992, 77–78) and Ska (1996, 259) have moved to the idea of a single (priestly) account, which was later retouched. In other words, rather than dividing the text fairly evenly in two, they attribute most of it to a single author and reserve just a small percentage to an editor.

So some scholars are finding the different pieces fit better as if the story was composed as a single unit from the start. Brodie lists other indicators of what he believes is a unitary narrative: read more »

Should Scholars Vote? Mocking The Jesus Seminar / The Jesus SeM&Minar

Religion Prof James McGrath has a class on the historical Jesus in which he regularly pokes fun at the Jesus Seminar for supposedly attempting to decide the authentic words of Jesus by voting.

I have an activity that I run in my class on the historical Jesus, in which I get students to reenact what the Jesus Seminar became famous for doing at its meetings. The Jesus Seminar, for those who may not be familiar with it, produced a variation on the classic red letter editions of the Gospels. They voted as a group on which sayings of Jesus they consider authentic – the actual words of Jesus; which provided the gist but probably not something really close to what Jesus said; which may be in essence still true to the emphases of Jesus but owe more to the later church; and which are simply inauthentic. They voted using colored beads: red, pink, grey, and black. These correspond to the views on the authenticity of the saying in question listed above, so that the resulting edition still has “the very words of Jesus himself in red letters,” but very few of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels end up printed in that color.

I got students to do the same things, giving them a particular saying in its various forms across ancient sources, letting them debate, and then asking them to vote.

The especially “fun part” this time was that customized M&M’s were used:

This year, I took a step that I never did before. In the past I’ve simply had students bring M&Ms and we’ve decided what the regular colors would correspond to in the scale. This year, I placed an order for custom M&Ms for use in this activity. They are red, pink, grey, and black, and some of them say “Jesus SeM&Minar” on them!

McGrath’s idea has been taken up by another scholar, Keith Reich, who explains

The idea is to, Jesus Seminar style, vote on various sayings and/or deeds of Jesus as to their historical probability, but instead of using colored stones, one uses M&Ms.  More fun, and hey, you get to eat your vote after you are finished. 

McGrath hews to the point of making fun of the Jesus Seminar:

Then we vote, secretly, by dropping a colored M&M into a box with a hole cut in the top. We then tally the votes and figure out the average. (Students can also learn the useful skill of calculating their grade point average through this activity).

. . . . .

The Jesus Seminar, as far as I know, doesn’t get to eat the beads used for voting once that process is over, and so the case can be made that our way of doing things doesn’t merely imitate theirs, but is superior.

As if “truth” or “history” can be decided by a vote! Ha ha.

One often sees the Jesus Seminar ridiculed in this way. So let’s give the Seminar a chance to explain itself.

The Jesus Seminar was organized under the auspices of the Westar Institute to renew the quest of the historical Jesus and to report the results of its research to more than a handful of gospel specialists. At its inception in 1985, thirty scholars took up the challenge. Eventually more than two hundred professionally trained specialists, called Fellows, joined the group. The Seminar met twice a year to debate technical papers that had been prepared and circulated in advance. At the close of debate on each agenda item, Fellows of the Seminar voted, using colored beads to indicate the degree of authenticity of Jesus’ words. Dropping colored beads into a box became the trademark of the Seminar and the brunt of attack for many elitist academic critics who deplored the public face of the Seminar.

(Funk, 34. Bolding in all quotations is my own)

What were the methods to be followed in those debates?

This was the rule the Fellows adopted:

• Canonical boundaries are irrelevant in critical assessments of the various sources of information about Jesus.

They refused, in other words, to privilege the gospels that came to be regarded as canonical by the church. The Seminar thus acted in accordance with the canons of historical inquiry.

(Funk, 35. Red text original)

So where did the voting come in? What was that all about? read more »

Is Luke’s Silence Evidence of Ignorance?

The Apostle Paul

When reading scholars’ arguments about determining the dates of books in the New Testament, I often come away feeling as if I know less than when I started. Their works frequently leave me with a dull headache.

Many current scholars have placed all their eggs in the internal evidence basket, admitting that all the external evidence we have is, at best, inconclusive. They focus on what the writers said and didn’t say, compared to what they assume a writer would say — or would not say — at any given period or with any given theological bent.

You might expect that the loss of all external corroboration would bring with it a concomitant drop in reliability. Or, to put it another way, the confidence interval (i.e., the range of dates between which a book was probably written) would now necessarily be quite large. However, you must recall that we’re dealing with NT scholars. Their lack of evidence is more than offset by their brimming self-confidence.

Because mainstream scholarship has generally concluded that the authors of Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark, we have a chain of dependency. We can say, for example, that if Luke depended on the availability of Mark’s gospel then Luke must have written his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (assuming the same author wrote both) later than Mark.

Beyond that, if we could peg the dates for Luke and Acts at a certain point, then we would in the same stroke have defined the terminus ad quem for the writing of Mark. Using this logic, conservatives and apologists point to the fact that we never learn about Paul’s death in Acts. He arrives in Rome. He’s under house arrest. Then, silence. What does it mean? read more »